The Odd Blog

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Rough Draught: Parliament

Posted by That Other Mike on 07/12/2007

Before I go into the exact details of the system I have in mind, I’d like to go over a few details. This is for explanatory purposes – partly for any readers who may not understand the different usages and terminology and partly to discuss why I think they should or should not be used.

This is a long post, with lots of technical detail, but I hope you’ll bear with me while I work it out.

First, the differing electoral systems. These will be discussed in terms of electing electoral bodies.

The first past the post system, as used in the UK Parliament, is problematic. On the one hand, it has a number of advantages and points in favour of its use; on the other, it has rather telling disadvantages. FPP systems generally use many single member districts or constituencies in which the winner is the candidate who has the largest single amount of votes.

The major advantage of FPP is, that like all plurality-winner electoral systems, it generally produces a clear victor; this is an undervalued component of any political process. It promotes overall satisfaction and confidence in elections; people feel that there is a settled, comfortable result. The candidate wins because he got more votes, or he does not.

Another is its simplicity – there is none of the complex mathematical jigging and calculations common to other electoral systems. You cast your vote, and bar the counting, the process is done and dusted.

The third major benefit of FPP is that because it relies on districts as the basic political unit, people are represented directly in their area by an individual. They have a representative who is directly accountable to them, the voters, whether they actually voted for him or not.
The disadvantages of plurality voting systems are that they waste votes: in a district where many parties are contesting a seat, it is possible for the vast majority of people not to vote for a single candidate who then wins. This is undemocratic: these people’s voices are not being heard in an effective way; they tend to produce tactical voting, in which people do not vote for their preferred candidates because they feel it to be a wasted vote as detailed above and instead vote for a different candidate who might have a chance at beating the favourite; they also tend to produce two-party systems, which become entrenched and greatly hinder the spread of any new parties or political ideas and movements.

In short, while some aspects of FPP are desirable, many others make it a less than ideal choice.

Another approach lies with PR (proportional representation) and preference voting. These are basically umbrella terms for electoral systems which attempt to allocate seats in a legislative body based on the proportion of votes or distinctly articulated preferences received. There are many different systems in PR, some of which are purely based around percentages, such as party list systems, in which members of the legislature are picked according to their positions on lists of party members; or the hybrid systems of preference voting, such as STV, or single transferable vote, in which voters in multi-member constituencies rank candidates by preference; votes above a certain threshold automatically result in a candidate’s being selected, and any first place votes are then allocated to the individual with the most second place votes, and so on.

While PR clearly produces a more democratic result, in that it shows voters’ true preferences and tends to eliminate waste, it generally is a complicated and fussy way of voting which is likely to be unappealing to the electorate; pure percentage systems operating according to party lists sever the direct local link between the people and their representatives, eroding accountability and responsibility; it tends to result in ambiguous results; preference voting may also, in terms of more partisan people, result in their only carefully choosing their first preference and randomly assigning the others; and finally, preference voting systems can result in many people’s individual preferred candidates not being selected, leaving them almost as badly represented as by FPP. Again, in some respects, PR is desirable, and in others it is not.

No doubt many of you will be half-asleep by now, and for that I’m sorry; being a poli-sci nerd is a terrible affliction. If you’ll permit me a brief digression into the types of political assemblies commonly used, I’ll finally get to my rough draught of Parliament.

Legislatures are commonly unicameral or bicameral; that is, they have one or two chambers. While other systems have been used or mooted from time to time (notably by Simon Bolivar, who argued for tricameralism and a tetracameral system as used in the mediaeval dual kingdom of Sweden and Finland and later the Grand Duchy of Finland under the Russian Empire), most legislatures tend towards either unicameralism or bicameralism.
Notable unicameral systems include the Israeli Knesset, the State Legislature of Nebraska (also noteworthy for being entirely unpartisan in its selection procedures), the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, and the Scottish Parliament, to mention just a few.
Bicameral systems are represented by the UK Parliament, the US Congress, the European Parliament and Council of the European Union, the German Bundestag and Bundesrat and many others.

The advantages and disadvantages of unicameral and bicameral systems really reflect their respective natures: unicameral systems are simpler and offer governments a chance to act freely to pursue their aims, yet this can be a bad thing; governments without brakes are liable to get out on control; supporters will also say that they avoid unnecessary duplication and bureaucracy, while a criticism is that they over-represent populous urban areas at the expense of the rural. Bicameral systems, on the other hand, can provide a much-needed check on government powers, while at the same time being prone to stalemates and getting in the way of political reform when needed; they are also predisposed to democratic deadlock if both chambers have equal legitimacy through popular mandate, and liable to criticism if one chamber is appointed or otherwise non-elected.

All of the above poli-sci stuff was to bring up the fact that we have to use the various good points and leave out the rest wherever possible; leave in the clarity and simplicity of FPP while maintaining the democratic strengths of PR; use the checking and balancing characteristics of bicameralism while upholding the simplicity and ease of unicameralism.

The solution I advocate is broadly as follows: a one-and-a-half chamber system that combines characteristics of FPP and PR.

It goes like this: 400 constituencies around the country will elect a single MP using the FPP system; they will then proceed as a conventional legislature, forming an executive and legislating.

Any votes cast for losing candidates will be counted and tallied. They will then form the basis for a proportional roster of 200 committee members who will form fixed committees of 10 members based around fixed subjects; committee members will be allotted by party list, and their committee placements by randomised lottery. Ad hoc or sub-committees may be formed according to a majority vote in the main chamber and committees. Committee members will not be able to propose or vote directly on legislation.

All legislation proposed by the government in the main chamber will be required to go through the relevant committee, which may propose amendments or block a bill; the main chamber may accept these with a majority vote, which will then go to the committee again for acceptance and then Assent, or may override these with a three quarter vote.

There are obviously details to be fleshed out, but this is what I see it looking like in the rough.



2 Responses to “Rough Draught: Parliament”

  1. The issue I have with PR systems is that they seem to give too much power to the parties. How to you run as an independent? Other than that they are generally more democratic than FPP. I prefer the run off system employed in some of the states and France. The primaries can function in much the same way if they are taken seriously by the voters.

    The biggest problem I foresee with your 1 1/2 chamber system is that it would be prone to dead lock. With the committees made up of opposition party members, they would be attempting to keep the party in power from accomplishing anything. At least that’s what I would expect to happen.

  2. Mike said

    These are issues I considered in the first instance; while it might be near on impossible for an independent to get in one of the committees, they can still run in constituencies. It’s not unheard of for independent candidates to be elected in general elections here, while I believe in the US it’s somewhat more difficult due to the two parties stacking the deck against them. Primaries I don’t like; they seem an unnecessary waste of time and energy to me. Similarly, run off is somewhat complicated and prone to the same problems as FPP.

    As to the deadlock issue, I think that might actually be a plus point – the various parties are forced by the nature of the system to seek consensus and moderate their extremism. Also, the committees wouldn’t be solely made up of the opposition; if you look at the UK general election of 2005, both the Conservatives and Labour achieved approximately 8.7m and 9.5m votes each respectively, which would result in similar levels of committee representation and smooth out the inequities of FPP.

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